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Immigration emerges as policy response to slowed US growth

Attracting more permanent residents and younger foreign grads could help reverse the slow US population growth, policy experts say

Immigrants prepare to take the oath at a naturalization ceremony in Philadelphia in February 2020.
Immigrants prepare to take the oath at a naturalization ceremony in Philadelphia in February 2020. (Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The 2020 census results revealed the slowest U.S. population growth since the Great Depression, prompting advocates and policy experts to ramp up efforts on Capitol Hill for changes to the U.S. immigration system.

The slow growth rate, coupled with an aging population and declining birth rates, could have long-term economic impact in the United States. Changes to the immigration system, including efforts to attract more permanent residents and young foreign-born graduates, may be the solution, they’re telling lawmakers.

“We encourage Congress and the Biden Administration to pursue policies that expand avenues to immigration for our continued prosperity, and to create new jobs across the country,” Todd Schulte, president of FWD.us, a pro-immigration group, said in a statement.

The organization was one of several to release a report or policy brief calling for increased immigration to counteract demographic decline.

The National Immigration Forum in its report warned that if the trend continues, the U.S. could see devastating economic consequences — including a depletion of Social Security funds, less tax revenue from fewer working-age residents, and critical labor shortages, particularly in rural areas.

“There’s increasing consensus that immigration really has to be part of the response here,” said Danilo Zak, the forum’s senior policy and advocacy associate and co-author of the report calling for expanded immigration in response to the latest census data.

[Census: California, Northeast, Midwest lose House seats]

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, also released a policy brief in the wake of the release of census results, partly blaming the declining population growth on congressional inaction on immigration for decades.

While the U.S. may be facing a number of other urgent issues, an aging American workforce and labor shortages “make reforming the legal immigration system an equally pressing issue,” the brief concluded.

The issue was raised to lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration panel during a hearing focused on “barriers to legal immigration.”

“It’s not lost on us that the Census Bureau just yesterday announced that we have the lowest growth in the United States since the 1930s,” John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said at the hearing. “In order for our population to grow and survive and prosper, we do need more immigrants in the system.”

His call appeared to resonate with Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas.

“It’s long past time that we recognize that immigrants are a net positive for our economy,” she said later in the hearing. “And after the results from the Census Bureau recently, we should recognize that we need them.”

Possible solutions

Overall, the U.S. population reached 331 million in 2020, a 7.4 percent increase from 2010 and one of the slowest growth rates in the country’s history. In addition, the agency predicts that by 2030, 1 in 5 U.S. residents will be of retirement age. By 2060, there will be 2.5 working-age adults to every retirement-age adult.

Roughly a million people became U.S. permanent residents in 2019, more than half of whom were already living in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security. 

Zak’s report, “Room to Grow,” calls for a 37 percent increase in permanent immigration annually — or about 370,000 based on 2019 figures.

A sustained increase of 370,000 green card holders would maintain the ratio of working-age to retirement-age adults at 2020 levels, assuming that the age breakdown of immigrants coming to the U.S. stays the same, the report concluded.

Possible solutions to a stagnant population extend beyond green cards. In its policy brief released earlier this month, MPI called for a restructuring of the immigration system to expand opportunities for employment-based immigration, including temporary visa programs.

With H-1B specialty occupation visas — the primary path to a green card for foreign-born professionals, including those educated in the U.S. — capped well below market demand, young professionals and entrepreneurs have few immigration options in the United States.

The think tank proposed the creation of a “bridge visa,” which would put foreign workers at various skill levels on a path to a green card while providing them with greater job flexibility in the meantime.

MPI also recommended the creation of an independent government body that would set immigration levels annually based on the U.S. current market and demographic needs, rather than maintaining preset levels. The H-1B visa quota, for instance, hasn’t been updated in three decades.

“The U.S. legal immigration system, and legal immigration policy, is in need of reform. It’s no longer aligned with our economic or demographic realities, or really how immigration functions today,” said Julia Gelatt, an MPI senior policy analyst who co-authored the report.

Policy changes targeting rural areas facing more severe population decline, for instance, have also emerged as ways to address demographic shifts.

Testifying before Congress in February, John Lettieri, CEO of the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public policy organization, urged lawmakers to consider a “heartland visa,” which would allow local communities to sponsor foreign workers to fill specific labor shortages.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., has been working on proposed legislation to create such a geographically tied heartland visa, as well as a startup visa to draw in immigrant entrepreneurs.

Lofgren said in an interview earlier this month that both draft bills remain in the works, and that she is “getting close to” gathering co-sponsors on the startup visa proposal.

Political hurdles

The idea of merit-based immigration has drawn support from both sides of the aisle.

In 2019, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., introduced a bill to increase employment-based immigration to the U.S. by no longer counting dependents, like spouses and children, against green card caps. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, has also repeatedly voiced support for a merit-based immigration system.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for lower immigration levels, also supports a merit-based immigration system, one that’s more flexible to the labor market.

“It does have to be some kind of flexible dynamic system so that we can assess what the needs of the economy currently are and make our decision based on those assessments,” he said.

[Partisan divides emerge over border infrastructure]

But Democrats and Republicans frequently butt heads over total levels. Some Republicans support changes to merit-based systems, but as a replacement for, rather than an addition to, existing family-based immigration options.

“We think that’s a bad idea,” Mehlman said of the notion to add merit-based opportunities to the current scheme. “If the current system isn’t working, there’s no reason to perpetuate it.”

And with the current immigration debate swallowed up by heated rhetoric surrounding asylum policies at the border, experts acknowledge that there may not be widespread appetite in Congress when it comes to an overhaul of employment and merit-based immigration.

Meanwhile, the major immigration legislation currently circulating in Congress focuses on providing a path to legal status for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., including those who grew up in the country or have lived here for years, rather than on drawing more immigration from abroad or restructuring visa systems.

“It doesn’t seem like Congress is thinking about legal immigration. I think there are some other issues Congress may tackle first,” Gelatt said.

She compared the situation to climate change — a gradual catastrophe where, “until we actually start to feel the effects, it doesn’t feel like an emergency.”

“We do think that it’s pressing, but at this particular moment, we’re not putting in a heavy push,” she said.

Marshall Fitz, managing director of immigration at the Emerson Collective, a think tank and philanthropic organization, predicts Congress may not be spurred to action until it sees real consequences, like the U.S. falling behind in the 5G broadband race or facing shortages in key industries.

“The more that these effects of the broken system are visible, the more pressure there is in Congress,” he said. “I don’t think that the sheer weight of the census numbers and the implications of that are probably enough.”

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